Sundance 2013: Day 3

Ain't Them Bodies Saints, The East and Stoker.

by Amber Wilkinson

Day 3 of Sundance brought realised expectations and disappointments as I caught David Lowery's Ain't Them Bodies Saints, Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling's The East and Park Chan-Wook's Stoker.

Lowery's second feature was one of the films I was most looking forward to going into the festival. His debut feature St Nick and award-winning short Pioneer both have a haunting quality. Pioneer - which sees a man telling his child a bedtime story of epic proportions - also has a mythical sweep and is drenched in an amber colourscape that are both replicated here.

The quality of the light - beautifully captured by DoP Bradford Young - somehow matches the warm glow of the film's central relationship between Bob (Casey Affleck) and Ruthie (Rooney Mara). They are at the point of love where much of what goes on between them passes in unspoken understanding and, with a baby on the way, what could go wrong? Just about everything as it turns out, thanks to the pair's criminal tendencies. After a bungled job, Ruthie accidentally wings local cop Patrick (Ben Foster) and, after Bob takes the blame, he is locked up for 25 years. He is not content to stay in jail, however, and soon she is facing tough choices about the future for her and her daughter, while Bob is being hunted by more people than just the law.

Lowery's film has timeless and geographically vague quality that gives what is happening an Americana, mythical sweep and there is also a dreamlike quality, heightened by the fact that he withholds key events from the audience in favour of focusing in on the build-up to them and the aftermath. Affleck's performances carries the gunsmoke flavour of his role in The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford but Bob is a much more single-minded character, driven by the need to reconnect with his family at any cost. There are bullets here, too, but it is relationship tension that drives on the story, as old scores threatened to be settled and lovers face temptation.

Speaking after the premiere, Lowery talked about his decision to withhold certain moments from the audience.

"That's key to how I like to tell stories," he said. "I like to focus on the spaces between the sentences. You listen to the silences between people and you really learn a lot. I like in terms of the cinematic storytelling, finding the moments that aren't the big moments, that aren't the ones that explain everything or the moments that would show you what happened. I like to focus in on those moments in between, which I think are more telling. When you juxtapose a lot of those together, I think you get a sense of the big picture without being hit over the head with exactly what happened. It leaves a little bit of room for imagination and to slip into the character's lives in a slightly different way."

Ain't Then Bodies Saints fulfilled my expectations and then some - and is a very serious contender for the Grand Jury Prize come the awards ceremony later in the week.

Although The East was not in the same league, it is a solid enough follow-up to Marling and Batmanglij's Sound Of My Voice, which caused a stir at Sundance 2011. The pair return to notions of cults, marrying a story of 'hacktivism' to familiar thriller tropes. Marling plays Sarah, a former FBI agent (they must be recruiting them incredibly young these days). She is now working for a private intelligence firm, aiming to infiltrate would-be terrorist cells and dismantle them from within. After managing to get herself accepted by a group known only as The East, she finds herself involved in their retributive action - which they refer to as 'jams' - and discovers she is increasingly attracted to their charismatic leader Benji (Alexander Skarsgård) and his cause.

The East bustles with ideas to such an extent that tension is initially squandered in favour of just keeping up with what is happening. A subplot with the ever-watchable Jason Ritter as Sarah's long-suffering but loving boyfriend feels like a distraction and the filmmakers have to pile up the coincidences in order to keep the action moving. There's a nagging feeling that Marling and Batmanglij feel very pleased with themselves but the story is neither as profound nor unpredictable as they think.

Stoker, Park Chan-wook's first film in English, despite showcasing his skills behind the camera, is also a disappointment. Scripted by Prison Break's Wentworth Miller, it owes so much in story terms to everything from Alice In Wonderland to Shadow Of A Doubt that you can't help feeling you've seen it all before, even if the visual storytelling is compelling.

Speaking before the screening, Park Chan-wook said: "We all know every girl is special. So she is a special girl. Every story that is about a special girl should be special." The reference to the push-me, pull-you state of adolescence - with twin forces drawing you back towards childhood and on into adulthood - is the most interesting idea in the movie but it is swamped by cliche. The central story of Stoker has been told many times before and with much more accomplishment. Read the full review

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